Timeless darkness, punctuated by flashes, moments, all vague and fleeting in memory. Drifting in and out, dreams and nightmares blooming, fading, falling away to be forgotten. Semiconscious stumbling, eating, then sinking back into a bottomless ocean of slumber. Swimming in the abyssal depths, enormous shapes drifting by. Searching for him. He stays quiet, still, dark.
But now he begins to surface. Utter exhaustion has been sated with days of rest. He longs for the sun. And as he rises…a smell.
“Nnggggg?” One eyes opens, then the other. He peels his tongue from the roof of his mouth, smacks his lips. Mouth tastes…soapy?
“It’s alive!” The voice is familiar. Somrak? “Astonishing…I have a plate with six steaks on it already getting cold, you lazy bastard.”
“What…” Turning in bed, mouth flooding with salivation, squinting against the light. “Ugh…you doing here?”
“You called me, remember? Do not call up that which ye cannot put down. First rule of summoning.” Somrak comes into focus. Cooking in the kitchen nook. Wearing a tshirt and leather pants. Grinning.
Is that a flashy bangle on his ponytail? And…a lock of grey hair?
“I mean in my room.” Rubs his eyes. “Why does my mouth taste like soap?”
“Uhhh… Well, I did notice there was no soap in the bath.”
“Damn…not again…” Slowly gets up, walks to the table, scratching his rear. “I could eat an army.” Grabs a sizzling steak from the pile, ignoring the mild sting of pain in his fingers. Notices Somrak is not using the magical heating element built into the kitchen range, but heating the pan with his own flame.
“You know the drill from the last two times,” Somrak says. “Take a steak with you and get in the bath. Then pants. Then more steak.”
Sky mumbles around the rare steak, “Mhn mmm you?”
“Oh…I’m good.” Somrak sounds rather uncertain. “Thank you for asking.”
“Mhhhmmm.” Sky gulps. Soooo good.
“Chew! I am not giving you first aid if you choke!”
“‘m fine…” He starts chewing again, and squints at Som. “Mmmhh nnnrr hair?”
Somrak just stares at him for a moment. “Decades of interpreting Sky-ese and I didn’t catch that one. How do you command a station mumbling like that?”
Sky points to his own hair, then at Somrak’s. “Yoummnnn Mnwetty…An mnnooonn aauughh!” The meat goes down the wrong way. “Ack!” He starts to choke.
Somrak sighs. “Demons and devas…” He stomps over and hits Sky hard on the back.
Sky coughs up and spits out the meat he was choking on, then wheezes, “Thanks. Better get in the bath.”
“Please do! Now what were you saying before you nearly died?”
“Hmm…?” Sky grabs another steak and goes into the bathroom. There is no toilet in there – that is behind its own door, and from the smell coming from under the door, he has some cleanup to do. Half-conscious waste elimination has its effect on aim. Ugh. “Was I saying something?” He takes a bite out of the steak, chews, swallows while fumbling under the sink with his free hand, and finds a new bar of soap. “Oh! What happened to your hair?”
Somrak tosses another steak on the pile, then touches the silvery lock. “Oh that. I don’t know, really. Could’ve been the demon. Or the phoenix. Maybe Alma, as a joke.”
Settling into the tub, its hot, endlessly replenishing water soothing his too-long nearly immobile muscles, Sky opens his eyes wide and wonders if he’s still asleep. “Wha–? Demon? Alma? What did you do?”
Somrak’s amused voice echoes from the kitchen. “Come to think of it, maybe it was Dion. He was throwing around some pretty powerful magic there. Random side effect?”
Sky’s eyes widen. He stands, then staggers, tracking puddles through the main room, heading for the blank space on the wall that holds the currently invisible portal that leads to his office or his false apartment, depending on the gestures he uses to activate it. He is still somehow clutching the steak.
“HEY! Get back in the bath! As tempted as I am to see what happens when you walk into Three Rats Station naked, dripping wet and holding a steak…no, just get back in the bath!”
Pausing, eyes narrowed, Sky asks, “Who are you and where is Somrak?”
“Huh…you’re right.” Somrak laughs. “A week ago I totally would’ve let you do it. But Alma is pretty stressed out right now, so forget it. She doesn’t need this crap.” He points back along the watery track Sky has left. “Bath!”
Sky hesitantly obeys, gnawing on his steak. “Mmhhn Awa stressmmmd?”
“Uh let’s see…She and I and Dion and Fencer went undercover. Man, you should’ve seen that hot little leather number Alma wore as a disguise.” He glances at Sky, who has stopped with a chunk of steak hanging from his dropped jaw. “…anyway. She had to heal me up but good after the fight with a demon…herself too. Then there was the glitter fight with her and the Bunnies. Then the zombie rat…you know what? I’ll save that one for later after you’re really awake. Let’s just start at the beginning. It’s been an eventful week.”
Sky, shaken, a flood of questions logjamming in his brain, gets back in the bath. He swallows down the meat, and one question randomly pokes out from the others. “You met the Bunnies, huh? How they doing?”
“Oh, they’re good. Didn’t talk much with most of them. Tulip’s a…how would you say it? She’s a caution. Yeah, that sounds right. Sage is a nice guy. Merri’s sweet, but I have to admit I made her pretty mad about burning the table.”
“Later. Cherry…she’s very protective of Saira, so she and I butted heads, but I think she likes me anyway. Uh, the two younger boys, hardly saw them.”
“Mayumi?” With all these befuddling revelations, Sky finds himself very worried about her.
“Oh, she’s fine. I think. Hardly exchanged a dozen words with her, though. She always seems busy. Serious. Studying and working.”
Sky relaxes in the bath, continuing to feed his famished body, trying to fit the disjointed narrative together.
“All right, from the beginning. So I came at your call,” Somrak continues. “Things started out fine. Met the mysterious Saira. She’s better than she was a week ago, by the way.” Sky can hear him cleaning the pan. As is his habit, Somrak always cleans up after himself, and right away as well.
“Ohmm good.” He narrows his eyes. “You…have orders about her?” He takes another bite.
“I was told to offer her a job. Which she refused. Good thing the old man didn’t have a ‘dispose of her if she refuses’ addendum.”
“Whamm she say?” He can feel the meat stuck between his teeth, prompting a desperate desire for dental floss.
“I bet you can guess. She’s got things to do, people to kill. Doesn’t want anybody telling her to kill someone not on her radar, or not kill somebody in her sights.” Somrak’s voice grows louder as he approaches, appearing in the doorway to the bathroom and leaning against the frame in that casual, Somrak-y way he always does. It’s like how cats have to jump into boxes: if there’s a solid vertical surface nearby, Somrak has to lean against it. “Unlikely she’ll take out anyone we don’t want taken out, so Commander will probably let her continue. Still…that could change.”
“What’d you–” Sky feels himself about to choke again. He gulps, then punches his own chest, prompting a belch like a foghorn. “Sorry – think about her?”
Somrak shrugs. “She’s a psycho, but she’s our kind of psycho. Too bad she’s so fixated. Maybe she’ll come around… Maybe she already has, just isn’t willing to admit it.”
Sky finishes the meat and looks down at the greasy film on the water. Disgusting. He hauls himself out again, sitting on the edge, and starts to fumble for a bottle of shampoo.
“And then what?”
“Hey, shampoo, then conditioner!” Somrak calls out. Sky has to admit, the guy knows how to keep his hair nice. “Anyway, a lot of that with Saira was later, really. Just met her briefly at first. So, uh, Alma shows me around the ward a bit, and…I overheard about a gang around Rio Novo making trouble.” He falls silent.
Eyes shut tight, face covered in suds, Sky sighs. “Crap…how many dead?”
Somrak’s voice is unusually quiet. “None. I was trying to be restrained. Turns out it wasn’t restrained enough, though. Prettyboy…explained things to me.”
“Who’s Prettyboy?” He grabs the simple shower head, attached by a hose to the water pipe which bring in water from…somewhere. Doesn’t do to think too closely about such things. “Is that a parrot or something?”
“That would be Gwydion.” Somrak pauses. “Good man. Fencer dubbed him Prettyboy.”
“Fencer…?! The Fencer was here?” He remembers Somrak mentioning her already now. “Why?”
Somrak laughs as Sky drops the shower head into the bath. “Alma called her in. We’re jumping ahead. So after I got in trouble, Dion mentioned the demon market.”
Sky blindly fishes the shower out of the bath. “Cal mentioned a market before… How did you track it down?”
“The amulet you got off those guys. Turns out it’s a magical map. So Alma agreed, after some consideration that I’m surprised didn’t turn my hair completely white, to let Saira be my guide to the underworld of Three Rats. Better known as just Three Rats.”
“She let you? She let you, an off-blue newcomer, take her patient out into the streets?” Sky can’t believe what he’s hearing. “Alma? My Alma? Is she all right?”
Somrak snorts. “Your Alma, huh? Hey, chicks dig the ponytail, I told you. As for is she all right…” He stops and goes to Sky’s C-shaped sofa, sitting heavily on it. “I hope so.”
Great. “What happened?”
“That’s…getting ahead again. Listen, she did a good job commanding the station. But I am glad you’re awake. She’s, I don’t know, she’s still dealing with killing Nekh or something. Why anybody would be doing anything other than dancing on his grave, I don’t know, but I do recognize that everybody’s not me. As you never hesitate to remind me.”
Sky nods grimly. “She’s a true-blue. And you know death gods aren’t much into killing.” He takes a washcloth, soaps it up, and starts scrubbing. “What about Dion? He helping her?”
“Death gods like to believe they’re not much into killing. Anyway, yeah, Dion’s taking good care of her. Saira and I talked to that Cal guy you mentioned. After that we came up with the undercover operation. I meant it to be just me and Dion at first, but it grew. Alma called Fencer in, joined in herself. We developed a couple of leads, one to the gang with that sorcerer of yours that was assassinated by the soul bomb, the other to the necromancer.” He sighs. “Then both of them got messed up.”
“How?” Sky’s voice is disappointed. How nice it would have been to have woken to news that the necromancer case was all tied up in a little bow.
“Some idiot who groped Alma – did I mention the hot undercover outfit? I should’ve taken pictures. So this moron, after she lets him live, releases a very nasty demon that crashes the whole market. That took down one lead. We had to go after the demon before it burned down the entire ward. Alma and Fencer were pretty impressive. And Dion…did you know he can improvise custom banishment spells for rare uncategorized demons?”
Sky opens his eyes wide, showering off the soap. “Really? He was very good at banishing that Walker Between. Hmm…maybe there’s a sphere there?” He eases back into the bath, the grease and dirt gone now that the old water has cycled away and been replaced.
Somrak picks up a book from the table and leafs through it, a ‘coffee table’ book from Earth, one full of gorgeous photographs and paintings of ocean life. Something that residents of the Insula know very little about, as the ocean surrounding the Celestial Mountain is merely a thin border between the land and the Void. Few are willing to explore. “Commander said something about him having no sphere…weird.” He stops to stare at something in the book that Sky cannot see. “A god who’s gone all this time with no sphere, learning magic to compensate, suddenly developing a sphere. That would be interesting.”
“Not many demons around. If that’s his sphere…”
Somrak looks up over the arm of the sofa. “If that’s his sphere, you better watch your step.”
Sky nods, sliding further down in the water, closing his eyes.
“So we fought a demon,” Somrak continues. “Alma got her hands burned, I got corrosive blood all over me. But we won, so who cares?” He smiles. “Alma healed me.”
Sky cannot help but smile as well. “Good, ne?” The memory of being healed by Alma floods back. “Gentle. Like a full-body kiss.”
Somrak nods, quiet for a little while. Then he continues, “So the next morning I come downstairs from the room Cherry and Merri deposited me in, and there’s Alma chasing the little one, Tulip, half naked.”
Sky, eyes still closed, murmurs, “They’re Bunnies, they don’t have hangups about nudity.”
“I’m not talking about Tulip. Alma was half naked. Like, shirt-no-pants.” He pauses to enjoy the look on Sky’s face: eyes wide, jaw open. “Then she blew glitter all over me. I’m still finding glitter behind my ears.”
“Alma? Walking…around…no pants? Glitter?” He thinks for a moment. “Mind spell? Possessed?”
Somrak shakes his head. “I tell you, it’s the ponytail. Anyway,” His smile disappears. “Later on we’re all three sitting around, with Saira, having a drink, going over things, and this–” He almost chokes with disgust. “–undead rat jumps up on the table, croaks out some insults at Alma, and jumps at her face.”
Sky feels the blood rushing out of his face. “She–?”
“Not a scratch.” Somrak’s expression and voice are dark. “Rat had Dion’s tracking spell on it. Necromancer was taunting us, speaking through the rat. Alma…had a bad reaction. Dion helped her. I read the flames. They told me we’ll find the necromancer, just not yet.”
Sky stands and grabs a towel as he steps out of the tub. “You…talk to Alma since then?”
“Not yet. I’ll go there in a few minutes though. Say goodbye, let her know you’re ready for duty. You are ready for duty, right?”
Sky nods. “First day will be rough. But I don’t think I can sleep another day. Especially now.” He walks into the kitchen and pours himself a glass of guava juice, and drinks the entire thing in a few long gulps. “What do you think…about them?”
“About who? And now that you’re clean, it’s pants time. I’ve had just about enough of your bulky nakedness.” Somrak goes to Sky’s closet.
Sky ignores this. “The station? The team? I don’t… My emotions have been running like stampeding horses since I got here. These people…I’ve become attached to them. They’re…family?”
Somrak pulls out a pair of Guardia uniform trousers and tosses them at Sky. “You know how many times a day I heard your name? More than I could count. Half of those Bunnies think of you like you’re their father. Machado hates me, so he’ll be real happy to see you. Dion mentions you like a contrast to reckless me, which is hilarious, oh if he only knew, and Alma…she just wants you there.” He digs through a drawer in the closet, finds carefully rolled underwear and a folded shirt, and tosses those to Sky too. “Get back there soon. You’re needed.”
Too touched for words, Sky dresses in silence. Finally he says, “I will. Do you have to leave?”
“I’m expected back. Had to push to stay this long. If I didn’t know there’s no point in looking for the necro until the time’s right, I’d find a way to stick around, but…maybe if I get back to the Commander soon, I can return here for the takedown.” He gives Sky a serious look. “You’re calling me when it’s time. I want in on the arrest. Or the kill. However it goes.”
Sky nods grimly. “It’s Alma’s case. But unless she says no, I’ll call.” He glances at Somrak sideways. “You didn’t give her a reason to say no, right?”
Somrak seems frustrated. Perhaps angry with himself. “Hope not. We’ll see in a little bit here.”
Sky is tempted to ask but knows that with Somrak, sometimes it is better to be silent. “I’ll get ready.”